• Final Argosy 3 - The Mercury

    The Mercury

    By Tony Vallillo (28 August 2009)

    The Mercury

    Just two more trips to go - the final week of the American Airlines career of Tony Roma, as I have come to be known on the line! I am still expecting some sort of melancholy to set in, some sense of an end to things, but so far, thank God, that hasn't happened. Life just goes on, and there is always at least one more trip after this one, and so on and so on... Actually, there should only be one trip remaining now, not two -four days off and then the final final flight, the last Rome trip, the really Final Argosy! But there is a certain something that I still want to do in my career, and in order to do it I have to avail myself of an ancient tradition at American.

    Since time immemorial the last flight of a retiring crewmember (I have to remember to say crewmember, because some pilots are retiring as FO's) has been a festive affair, complete with the wife and family along for the ride and a party in operations upon arrival. I'm not sure if these ceremonials had their origins in the unbridled glee with which all of the junior pilots approach a senior person's retirement or perhaps in an effort on the part of the company to provide recognition and some formal acknowledgement of a remarkable achievement. (Indeed, the completion of an airline career is a remarkable achievement, what with all of the factors that can interfere with the successful conclusion thereof, factors like checkrides, physicals, the continuing existence of the company, and many others!) Whatever the origin of the tradition, the company goes to some lengths to ensure that a pilot's last trip is to his liking.

    Since not everyone retires from the position of number one in the bid status, it follows that not every pilot can get, as his last trip, one of the plums of the bid sheet. At least not through the bidding process! And so there evolved, over the years, a system by which the chief pilot would "buy" the trip of the pilot's choice in the event he could not bid it and hold it himself. The term "buy" is something of a misnomer, because no money changed hands directly. But the tradition is not without cost to the company, because "buying" a trip means paying the pilot whose trip it is to stay home while the retiree does the flying and, of course, gets paid too; thereby causing the company to incur the not inconsiderable cost of two pilots for one trip. AA has always been very good about this, and it is to their credit that most retiring pilots get to have a trip of their choice as a fini flight, regardless of their seniority. Indeed, in the years I held down the Rome trip I gave up more than one of them to retirees on last flights.

    Of course I have the seniority to bid and hold exactly what I want, and indeed I have done just that! What changes I needed to make to this final month's schedule, like the Paris trips of the past week, I have arranged myself through trades with other pilots. But this certain something that I want to do is outside the scope of my seniority, for the trip lies in the domestic division, not the international division, and between the two is a gulf that even seniority cannot normally bridge. Therefore I call upon the chief pilot to "do me a service", as Don Corleone would have put it, and "buy" me this certain trip that I cannot arrange on my own. The chief's response is "you got it"!

    There is an elegant simplicity to the number One. As a seniority number, even just within a bid status, it is the stuff of dreams; something to be coveted, but achieved only by a fortunate few. But there is another number One at American, a very historical number One, and this One has been around almost as long as the company has. This is Flight One, the premier New York to Los Angeles service; a flight which, for much of its tenure at American, had a name - The Mercury. In my entire career, I have never flown it as a crewmember. This is the trip I had the chief pilot buy for me, and this is the extra trip in the schedule this week. It makes for a busy week, what with a Paris trip, one day off, the two-day Mercury, another day off, and then the last flight of them all. But I am willing to bear the burden, since it will be the last I will be called upon to bear!


    DC-7 era Mercury baggage sticker

    The 747 was the king of the hill at American when I came aboard in 1977

    Long ago, when I was a new-hire and Pontius was still a Pilate, Flight One was the premier trip on the New York bid sheet (which is to say that it was the premier trip in all of American Airlines!). In those days it was operated with the 747-123, the biggest airplane AA has ever flown. The bid sheet for New York contained selections for all four aircraft types the company operated back then - the 747, DC-10, 707 and 727. In keeping with the notion that seniority has its privileges, the 747 selections were found on the first page of the bidsheet package, and the selections that contained Flight One generally were the first of the lot--I suspect so that the arthritic fingers of the single and low-double-digit-seniority pilots who could bid that sort of thing would not suffer too greatly! It was impossible to even peruse the monthly bidsheet without seeing these selections; and, after my own humble bidding was done, I often whiled away the hours imagining what it would be like to fly flight One, and its flip-side flight Two (the return LAX-JFK trip). I tried to picture what the world looked like from the upper deck of a 747 (this was all before I began flying the C-5 in the Air Force Reserves), and I fantasized what amorous opportunities there might be with a crew of 12 flight attendants, most of whom were female and relatively young! It never occurred to me, back then, that a 59 year old Captain might not be terribly attractive to any number of relatively young women!

    Since the professional flight engineers held the 3rd seat of the 747 firmly in their own grasp (American still had hundreds of the so-called "two stripe" flight engineers in 1977, former mechanics who were grandfathered in the FE position with super-seniority over all pilots), it was useless to aspire to flight One in any crew position. Even the FO's had seniority enough to hold a senior Captain bid on any narrow body. It was not until the 747 was retired, in the mid 1980's, and the DC-10 took over the duties of flight One, that anyone with my middling seniority could do a turn on the Mercury as an FO. And even then, only as a serendipitous consequence of being on reserve!

    In due course, as the 767 arrived on the scene, and many of the DC-10's were siphoned off to the growing international division, the new twinjet started to appear on the JFK-LAX transcons. It took some time for the 767 to knock the DC-10 off of the Mercury, but eventually flight One became a 767-200 trip, and it remains so to this day. When I eventually checked out on the 767, in 1999, I might have flown it but for a single fly in the ointment - flight One had migrated to the LAX crew base in the early 1990's, the result of a devil's bargain between the LAX Chief Pilot and the System Manager of Planning. Sick leave has always been a bit of a thorn in the side of the company, and when the LAX Chief managed to cajole his pilots into getting the base sick leave usage below that of New York consistently the reward was that flight One was put into the LAX trip selections, where it remained for many years. Indeed it was not until the mid-2000's that it began to creep back onto the New York bid sheet. Just in time for me to do it this once before I head out the door!

    Flight One leaves JFK at 09:00, which means that my wake-up time is around 04:30! Oh well, just this once more! The traffic is fairly light at that hour, and good time is made to the employee parking lot. Operations is fairly lively at 07:30, what with a great many Caribbean flights on order, as well as the several transcons and the early London trips (there are two flights to LHR in the morning, a bit over an hour apart ). The chief pilots are just arriving for another day of swivel-chair aviating (which I remember well, since I once flew a desk in this very office!), and I make certain to thank in person the fellow who made this domestic Argosy possible. That and the Jepp revisions done, I approach the computer to see what the dispatcher has ordered up for us. Flight One these days is, of course, a non-stop flight, as it has been ever since the mid 1950's. In the beginning, however, the Mercury had a great many stops, most of them necessary for refueling.


    American route map circa early 1930's. Although it was possible to get from New York to LA on American, it was neither swift nor easy.

    The flight plan for AAL 1 on 25 March 2008


    American Airlines was formed out of a hodge-podge of small early airlines spread almost completely across the country. The genealogical chart of American's ancestry is long and distinguished, including Robertson Airways, founded in 1921 and the earliest predecessor; an early iteration of Braniff Airlines that is unrelated to the later Braniff Airways International that was so famous in the 1960's and 1970's; and Colonial Air Transport, among many others. The territory these airlines covered extended in a great swath from New England and eastern Canada across the southern Midwest and on through the Southwest to southern California. These entities originally had little in common - certainly not airplanes, as the "fleet" of the early American Airways was perhaps the most varied and eclectic that existed in the fledgling airline industry of the late 1920's. Nor did the pilots share a common uniform, or even a common seniority list. (Actually, seniority lists per se did not come into being until the Air Line Pilots Association succeeded in organizing the airlines--American's pilots were among the first to join the new organization in the 1930's.)

    By 1929, according to George Cearley in his excellent book "American Airlines, America's Leading Airline", all of these companies and more had been gobbled up by a conglomerate called the Aviation Corporation, better known as AVCO. In 1930 the airline arm of this entity, made up of over 30 individual airlines, was unified under the name American Airways. It continued to absorb independent airlines, such as Century Airlines in California and Southwest Air Fast Express in Texas and Oklahoma until, in the aftermath of a major political scandal in 1934 that resulted in the cancellation of all air mail contracts, it was split from AVCO, further unified and renamed - slightly. The new name was American Airlines and new management was brought in, both conditions of the renewal of the airmail contracts in the aftermath of a disastrous attempt by the government to have the Army fly the mail. Amongst the new management was a tall and talented executive from Texas Air Transport named Cyrus Rowlett Smith and the rest, as they say, is history!

    By the time CR, as he quickly became known, took over the reins at American, there was already a transcontinental service of sorts in operation. But a more circuitous and inconvenient routing could hardly be imagined! Leaving Newark, which was at that time the airline terminal for New York, a passenger would fly north along the Hudson to Albany. Only then would the airplane turn west, toward Buffalo, stopping first at Syracuse and Rochester. Beyond Buffalo, the route followed Lake Erie to Cleveland, then southwestward to Columbus and Cincinnati, with a few intermediate stops thrown in for good measure. Continuing southwest, our passenger would eventually reach Dallas Texas, after first seeing Louisville, Nashville, Memphis and Little Rock. Finally the route bent west once again, stopping in Fort Worth, which was very much a separate city in those days and not part of a metroplex. Beyond Fort Worth the real "West" opened up - Abilene, Big Springs, El Paso, Tucson, Phoenix and finally Los Angeles.

    A trip like this took over 30 hours, and several different airplanes in the earliest days. Prior to around 1934 it was possible to utilize an air-rail scheme and cut out the shuffle-off-to-Buffalo by taking the Pennsylvania Railroad from Manhattan to Columbus Ohio, where a railroad station was conveniently located right on the airport. This airport had been set up for the original TAT air-rail service in 1929, and it was possible to get off the train and embark upon either a TAT (it was later called Transcontinental and Western Air, or just TWA, after a shotgun marriage with Western Air Express around the time of the airmail scandal) or an American Airways airplane. On American the remaining trip was entirely by air, whereas the original TAT service involved another train ride between Waynoka Oklahoma and Clovis New Mexico. (The TAT service had been set up [by Charles Lindbergh] as a complete transcontinental airline in 1929, somewhat earlier than American had even integrated its own mish-mash of a system. It was originally considered imprudent to fly at night, and the train segments were intended to keep the passengers moving east or west during the wee hours. By the mid 1930's night flying procedures, to say nothing of airplanes, had been improved to the point that both airlines had all-air service coast to coast.)

    In contrast to this circuitous ordeal, our flight today is a fairly straight shot across the USA. The dispatcher has chosen route 73, a non-FAA preferred route. I have always been at least a bit hazy on the subject of American Airlines route numbers - I don't know for sure, for example, if there actually are 73 (or even more) different possible routes between JFK and LAX. There could be, I suppose, considering all of the different airways and direct segments available in that long stretch. But in any event, my turn commanding the Mercury will proceed like this:

    JFK, RBV, J230 AIR, J80 VHP, J110 COWES, VLA, PETTI, STL, KK51I, ICT, J134 GUP, KA30O, HIPPI, TNP, SEAVU1.LAX


    Our route plotted on the online flight planner at AOPA.org

    The total distance for this domestic Argosy is 2177 nautical miles, and we should cover that today in 5 hours and 48 minutes. There are several waypoints on this route that are new to me (at that time) - KA30O and KK51I. These are part of a new system of waypoints named in a manner so arcane that several readings of the document that announced the system did little to break the code. To the initiated those 5 letters and numbers will disclose the location of the waypoint, similar to the way that 5540N denotes a position in the North Atlantic of 55 degrees North and 40 degrees West. Fortunately, it is of little import whether or not I can tell, just from reading, where KK51I is - these points are now also on the high altitude charts ( and perhaps the low altitude charts as well, for all I know! It has been literally years since I undertook to examine one!), and I could locate KK51I by looking to the west of STL. Just how far west of STL can be ascertained by looking at the mileage on the flight plan - in this case 74 miles.

    In the future, as the ATC system changes from ground based airways predicated upon VOR and other radio systems to a satellite based system, a grid of waypoints such as this will cover the entire country, and perhaps the entire world. Flight plans will be constructed by stringing together a series of these points, as close as possible to a real great circle route if the winds are light, or perhaps dog-legged if the winds are a factor. In this way, the ATC computers will be able to sort out the traffic flows and prevent collisions. ( As I write this, a year and a half later, we are probably farther down that road, although as I look on FlightAware at today's edition of the Mercury it is flying entirely on the Jet Routes, albeit farther to the north than we went last year - it is at this moment approaching South Bend Indiana and will pass within a few miles of ORD. There appears to be weather along the more direct route.)

    Our fuel load today is a shade over 75,000 pounds, or around 12,500 gallons. Considering that jet fuel cost a little over $3 per gallon on 25 March 2008, the total fuel bill for this flight amounts to around $38,000. That amount buys us the enroute flight time of 5:48, plus the 45 minute reserve and the trip to the alternate, which today is Ontario (KONT). Just for good measure, the dispatcher has allocated an additional 40 minutes of holding fuel and 23 minutes of additional fuel for possible altitude changes or enroute speed restrictions. The cost of this additional largesse is close to $4000 (it is, of course, included in the 38K mentioned above). Additional fuel requirements like this are considered carefully, as you might imagine, since the entire profit of this flight could amount to a considerably smaller sum than this extra fuel represents. On the other hand, if we should need it and it was not there, the resultant diversion would cost a good deal more. If I decided to save the 4 grand and go without the extra fuel, that decision would be made only after careful consideration of enroute alternatives available if we needed to land and refuel. Safety is never compromised.


    FlightAware plot of AAL 1 on the day this was written, 11 Aug 2009. The flight is near South Bend Indiana, on what is obviously a more northerly routing, probably due to the weather depicted farther to the south.

    Left main landing gear on the walkaround. This detailed inspection is a feature of every flight, from ultralight to 747.

    For as long as I have been around aviation, the price of things, mainly fuel, has been going up faster than an empty 757 departing Santa Ana! Saving fuel is nothing new - indeed, we tried to keep fuel usage within reasonable bounds even in the venerable C-141A back in the mid 1970's. But the incentive has become much greater in the aftermath of the latest round of fuel price increases that began shortly before I retired. It hardly seemed possible that we could reduce our fuel usage very much from the already miserly levels that we had achieved by the millennium, but lo and behold that is exactly what American and every other airline in the world has indeed done. Variable cruise speeds, winglets, better winds-aloft forecasting and route and altitude selection, and a ruthless paring of extra fuel carried for no more quantifiable reason than "for the wife and kids" has resulted in savings that literally kept the airlines alive through 2007 and 2008.

    The balance that must be achieved is that balance between the savings represented by reducing the fuel carried (which, of course, makes the airplane lighter and thus results in a lower fuel burn for the flight - it takes fuel to carry fuel) versus the additional costs of diversions and enroute refueling stops. It only takes a single enroute refueling to cancel out the savings of a score or more flights with reduced fuel loads, so a mind-boggling statistical analysis is carried out prior to each contemplated fuel reduction regimen. So far the wizards who do this sort of thing have gotten it right - I have never had to land enroute for additional fuel! Nor do I contemplate doing so today, partly because the dispatcher has apparently had some reservations and has already ordered up that extra fuel! At this time of year, of course, all it takes is a bit of sea fog rolling in from the Pacific to make life miserable at LAX, so no doubt the 4 grand will be money well spent!

    Weather-wise, JFK is beautiful, with winds out of the north at 10 kts and scattered high cirrus at 25000 feet. LAX, where it is still the wee hours of the morning, is under the influence of some fog, with visibilities around 2-3 miles and scattered clouds at 100 feet. The temp/dewpoint spread is only 2 degrees, so the LAX weather will bear watching. Ontario, well inland, is clear and a million. We will, of course, be bucking headwinds all the way, with wind factors ranging from -50 kts to around -80 kts. There are no forecasts of turbulence, although on a trip this long you can usually count on at least a bit of light chop somewhere to put ripples in the first class martinis!

    Having considered all of this, and the notams as well, and finding the dispatcher's plan to my liking, I sign the flight plan and we gather up the paperwork and our coats and kitbags and head on out to the airplane. Once the FO and I arrive, and I have briefed the cabin crew, I decide to perform the exterior walk-around inspection. It will probably be my last one on an airliner, since the last trip to Rome in three days will have the FB on the crew, and it generally falls to him or her to make the stroll. This is a ritual that I have been performing since 1970 and one which I still perform on the Cessna's, Pipers and Thorps that I fly these days.


    The 747 was really too big for even the transcons most of the time, and its high operating cost doomed it at AA. It followed the 707 out the door in the mid 1980's.

    Eagle RJ joins the takeoff lineup. These little jets have become upbiquitous, despite having the highest seat-mile cost in the industry. It is the low plane-mile cost that keeps them in the air.

    Another reason for my opting to do the walk-around today is that this will be my last opportunity to see a 767-200 up close and personal, so to speak. The 200 series was the original 767, introduced in the early 1980's as a replacement of sorts for the 707. Nowadays, since we are used to the longer 300 version, it tends to look like a small blimp, somewhat chubby and ungainly. But it performs well - in fact our flight plan today calls for an initial level off altitude of FL 380. The 200 seems to handle just a bit differently, with a slightly lighter feel to the controls than either the 300 or the 757. That is most likely a product of the artificial feel system, since all "feel" on large transport airplanes is artificially created, there being no air load feedback of any kind in a hydraulic operated flight control system. By the way, all of the 200's that we operate today are the ER, or extended range version; the earliest handful of domestic-only airplanes having already gone to the boneyard (and at least one of them having been offered on eBay - or its nose section, at any rate--as a shell for someone to build into a flight simulator!).

    As I inspect the airplane I am struck by the thought of why the B-777 has never made an appearance on flight One. Back in the day, the Mercury always had the latest and greatest (and usually the biggest!) equipment that Boeing or Douglas had on offer. That trend culminated, of course, in the 747, an airplane that was really too big for the transcon market much of the time. The big bird, which was actually a spin-off from Boeing's entry in the Air Force competition for what became the C-5, entered airline service just at the beginning of a major traffic downturn. All of the "big three" airlines (AA, TWA and UAL) used it for the premium transcons, flooding that market with unsold seats to the point that AA actually took out an entire section of coach seats and replaced them with the famous "Piano Bar Lounge". I think it was Wurlitzer who were induced to create a light weight electronic "piano", one of which still exists in the CR Smith Museum at DFW. According to crewmembers who flew in that era flight One was often a lively party, particularly if a passenger happened to have musical talent!

    The 747's at American went off to NASA (several of ours still ferry the Space Shuttle to Florida when it has to "land out") and a few other operators in the mid 1980's, victims of an exceptionally high plane-mile cost. There are two ways to figure the cost of operating an airplane, at least from an airline perspective - plane-mile or seat-mile. Plane-mile cost is merely the cost of flying the airplane from A to B divided by the distance. Seat-mile cost is, in essence, plane-mile cost further divided by the number of seats. So the 747 actually had a fairly low seat-mile cost, given the large number of seats, especially when the "lounge" was converted back into 50 or so coach seats! But seat-mile calculations are only really meaningful when most or all of the seats are filled with paying posteriors. When load factors are low the plane-mile cost still lingers, eating you alive with the cost of actually flying the big beast from A to B. Ironically, the lowest plane-mile costs in the industry are associated with RJ's, with their low fuel burns and slave-labor pay rates. BUT - the seat-mile cost of that tiny machine is abominably high, because the total cost [albeit low] is divided by so few seats. RJ's are useful as placeholders in a market in which an airline wants to maintain a presence, or in highly fragmented markets where no one can fill a full size airplane.


    The DC-10 inherited flight One after the 747 was retired

    The author grins from the cockpit as he prepares to command his one and only Mercury flight!

    When the DC-10 and, eventually, the 767 took over the JFK-LAX runs in the mid '80's, frequency became a better marketing strategy than sheer size. A 767 cannot, of course, carry 400 people, but two of them can, and at a cost close to the cost of a single 747 flight. The convenience to the passenger of additional departure time choices is now the biggest factor, and we have several additional flights in the schedule these days, compared to the three or four that were scheduled in the heyday of the 747. This practice has led, of course, to congestion and delays as frequency gained the upper hand over airplane size, but the convenience to the customer is so overwhelming that few today would actually argue the merits of, say, one A380 flight instead of three 767 flights!

    Competition has also helped drive the switch to smaller planes. Prior to deregulation only the so-called "Big Three" could serve JFK-LAX non-stop. There were usually three 747's (or, later, DC-10/L-1011's or 767's) departing JFK more or less at the same time - indeed, that was one reason why the 747's ran half full in the early days! Today any airline can serve those cities, and many do, albeit often to secondary airports like Long Beach. No matter, for if the price is low, as it often is, the passenger will beat feet to Long Beach or anywhere else just to fly on the cheap! So the market is broken up into many smaller shares, and a single airline can't fill a big airplane most of the time. The smaller wide-bodies came on the scene at just the right time. This explains why we have not seen the B-777 on the Mercury, at least at American. Too big most of the time, and better suited to the really long range flights.

    Completing the walk-around during these musings, I return to the cockpit to find that Pam, the FO has things all set up and ready to go. Pam is a veteran of flight One, although she is obviously a relative newcomer to AA, at least compared to her Captain! I tease her about the heavy burden of responsibility she must now bear - having to ensure that this old codger makes it to LAX and back safely and in time for his retirement trip later in the week! She takes it in good humor, no doubt mentally recalculating what her seniority will be after my departure!

    The ACARS printer spits out our ATC clearance: Kennedy One Departure, Breezy Point Climb, maintain 5000, expect requested altitude 10 minutes after departure. The same as thousands of others except for one thing - I have rarely ever flown the Breezy Point climb. The last time I flew a transcon out of JFK, we flew the Canarsie climb and continued the long way around the compass to West, circling north of LGA in the process. Today we will fly out the 223 radial of CRI towards RBV, passing just to the south of Staten Island. This routing will eliminate the merry-go-round and save a good 10 minutes at this end. To say nothing of some gas!


    Pushing back from gate 46 at JFK

    The new control tower at JFK. The cab is occasionally in the clouds on a really foggy day.

    Right on the advertised, as they used to say on the railroad, we button up and push back. Pam calls for taxi clearance after the engines are started and off we go to runway 31L. At this hour, the outbound traffic is relatively light, at least compared to the gaggle that forms in the early evening. Westbound flights typically use less than the full 14,000+ feet of runway 31L, since there is a generous 10,700 feet available from the intersection of taxiway KK, considerably more than we need today. The KK operation also permits simultaneous use of runway 04L for takeoff (and 04R for landing) while using 31L for departure. This makes for a more efficient operation. But today the winds favor the 31's, and the 4's are sitting idle, at least for the moment.


    A view of JFK from around the early 1960's. Runways 07L&R and 36L&R are clearly visible, although it is obvious that 36L has already become the cargo area (taxiways R and S today).

    Much the same view taken the next day, on the way back from LAX. All that remains of 07L is taxiway V - the new AA terminal more or less sits where 07L used to be. The approach light piers of 07R are still there. You can see this all much more clearly on Google Earth!

    There was once a time when Idlewild (as JFK was known before 1963) had 8 runways compared to the 4 it has today. The other runways, ghostly remnants of which can still be seen on Google Earth overheads, were 36 L&R and 07L&R (along with their reciprocals, of course!) This original layout was an expression of a postwar airport design philosophy that favored runways oriented every 30-45 degrees or so, forming a sort of pinwheel around a central terminal hub. The widely separated pairs of runways allowed for simultaneous takeoffs and landings into the wind under any and all wind conditions. ORD was originally planned like this, but when it was built only the eventual three pairs were actually constructed. JFK, on the other hand, used the extra 4 runways for some years, until the LGA and EWR traffic levels precluded their regular use in the 1960's and 70's. They eventually became taxiways and ramps, although the original 07R approach light piers are still visible in Jamaica bay. I often play "stump the copilot" and ask what those are - few modern day pilots seem to take much interest in the history of their chosen vocation, judging by the scarcity of correct answers I get!


    New kid on the block, at least back in March 2008. Virgin Atlantic starts his takeoff roll.

    Holding for takeoff on 31L at KK. This is the last time I used this runway - the remainder of my career was played out on 04R and 22L!

    Soon enough our turn arrives and we are cleared into position on the runway. We wait a minute or so for the previous departure to get a head start on us and then tower intones: "American One Heavy, Cleared for Takeoff". As the autothrottles bring the engines up to full power, the ship gathers itself up and shoots down the runway. V1 and Rotate and I ease the ship into the air for the fourth to last time! The Mercury is on its way to LA!

    Continued in The Mercury, part 2

    Anthony Vallillo
    [email protected]


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